Warning: Spoilers ahead for a novel that I expect to become fairly popular in the near future.
“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang, a Korean writer, is about food. I can hear the groans from here. She wrote the book a while ago but I gather it’s only recently been translated. It is a short novel that I had assumed would be ambient and elusive. I was wrong, it’s a runaway truck driven by an uncompromising polemic, it knocked me down and then backed over me just to make sure.
Han Kang was inspired to write the novel by a line of poetry, “I believe that humans should be plants.” The protagonist, a seemingly conventional Korean wife, has an epiphany and swears off meat, "The meat smell. Your body smells of meat", and then her world realigns itself with extreme violence. She suffers, oh she suffers; she is raped, abused, bashed, abandoned, used as a human canvas, manipulated and institutionalized. Meanwhile she sets out to turn herself into a tree.
In turns it’s sinister, psychotic, intense, suspenseful, painterly, unpleasant and yet liberating and ecstatic. But it’s not experimental, the narrative is linear and direct.
I’ve seen the content of the novel critically treated as allegorical but, as a vegetarian, it reeked of realism to me. If confrontation of animal abuse is the last taboo, it’s in the vanguard of modern literature. "The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides." That might read as crazy to you but I hear her.
Of course it deals with other stuff too- sexism, alienation, the oppressive nature of families- and Korean society gets a thorough trouncing, but I admit I mainly viewed it through vegetarian eyes. And after all of that, it’s a riveting read.
If you’re still here you're either white hot with anger or a vegie sympathiser. Either way, the moral: If your child or partner or parent suddenly decides they don't want to eat meat, do the unthinkable, back off and keep your opinions to yourself. Even more, if you love them, encourage them to do what they want to do with their bodies.
Spare and haunting but utterly mesmerizing, “The Vegetarian” might just end up being one of the great books of our era.
PS I got all excited when I read the Koreans have made a movie of it and I was ecstatic when I found it on Youtube, but then I discovered it doesn’t have subtitles-bummer. I watched a bit of it anyway and I think I’ll sit down and watch the whole thing because the narrative is clearly recognizable, even without language. Or maybe I just want to try being a plant for a bit.